Why do some of us over-react to stress? While life can be challenging, an under developed part of our physiology, our reflexes, may be not only adding to our stress but may be the actual cause of it. 

So what are reflexes and why are they so important? We have many types of reflexes, for example when the doctor takes out his little hammer and knocks our knee he is looking for a knee jerk. That is a muscle reflex – an automatic part of this human operating system we live in.

We have many types of reflexes, the reflexes that I am referring to here are our Primitive Reflexes. These are the first reflexes that emerge, either in utero or in early infant-hood. An example of this is the Moro reflex, watch most tiny babies as they react to a loud noise and you will see their eyes widen, a quick intake of breath and their arms and legs springing open, usually followed by a loud cry.

These early reflexes are a fundamental part of our developmental processes and have emergence and inhibition stages. They need to be fully integrated by about a year old to make room for what is known as the postural reflexes. These are the ones that help us to stand upright and start walking and crossing our midlines.

As these reflexes emerge and inhibit we learn to respond, instead of react to the world. Our ability to move, our perception of the world, our language and how we make sense of the world is built upon these reflexes. Only after the successful integration of them can higher functioning, for example, relationships or academic learning, become natural and stress free.

If these reflexes are not fully integrated we can get stuck in survival mode. We stay wired from the brain stem to react rather than respond to everyday situations. Consider our earlier example of the Moro Reflex: this reflex emerges 9 weeks in utero and should be fully inhibited by 2 – 4 months of life. Once this is inhibited the infantile startle response of jumping and crying is replaced by the mature startle response, which is to look in the direction of the noise and wonder what it is.

If it has not become integrated then it will display itself as an over-reaction to stressful noise situations. This means this person is continually being put into fight or flight survival mode by every loud noise experienced. Often the body will learn compensation – which creates a baseline of stress in itself – but will come undone during times of stress and once again there is an over-reaction to noise. If we think about the many experiences in a day it is easy to see that if the Moro Reflex is unintegrated our nervous system will feel like the sabre tooth tiger is constantly after us.

To find out more about how these affect our ability to learn and function read part 2…. 

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